Hundreds of thousands of people, hope in their hearts and change on their minds, gathered in Washington D.C. today to catch a glimpse of the historic inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama.
The coronation, which gathered a larger than life feel after months of swooning anticipation by the media and the masses, brought together Americans of all ages and backgrounds, regular folk and celebrity, all braving a very cold day on the Potomic.
These are just a few of their stories.
It was last May, when Barack Obama was still battling Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination. But James Jones, a retired schoolteacher and police officer in Philadelphia, apparently knew something the rest of us didn't.
And so his letter to Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey was brief and to the point. "I am a 73-year-old Black Man who participated in the civil rights movement," Jones began. "History will be made at the Democratic National Convention in Denver when Barack Obama will be the Democratic Presidential candidate. History will be made again for he will win in November. Will you PLEASE see that I get two tickets to attend this history making event."
It took a while, but Jones got the call about two weeks ago: The tickets were his.
Tuesday's trip will have a resonance for Jones that few can claim. One day in August 1963 he left his wife and kids at home and boarded a bus in Philadelphia headed for the March on Washington. There, he recalls now, "I heard a gentleman say, 'I Have a Dream.'"
"We were way, way back," he recalls. "We could see the Washington Monument, but not Martin Luther King." They could barely hear, either, except for snippets on a radio someone brought. "But just being there was important. It was electrifying."
Boarding the same bus back home, Jones and his fellow passengers exulted over what they'd heard. "We got on that bus and we were all elated, overjoyed," Jones says.
But just wait 'til Tuesday, Jones says. "I've got an idea it's gonna feel better this time because I never dreamed this would ever happen," he says of the moment he'll witness a black man take the oath of office.
Not that Jones was a believer from the start. When Obama first declared he was running, "I said, I dunno, I don't think he can make it." But sometime later, he looked at a friend and said, "I think this may be it."
Jones, a widower, drove with a friend on Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — to Washington, where he planned to spend the night with friends and take the Metro to the inauguration. There, Casey, whose staff showed him Jones' letter, hoped to meet him.
"My gosh, that letter was just infused with hope," Casey told The Associated Press. "In a few short words he captured not only the meaning of the election, but also the aspirations and hopes and dreams of so many in this country."
One thing Jones is counting on to be different than his 1963 trip: This time, he'll have a better view. "I think I'm a little closer than I was last time," he says.
The world awaits a glimpse of whatever glorious gown Michelle Obama has chosen for her inaugural balls. All Classy Hall knows is that her own is blue and long, with silvery sparkles, donated by a local bridal shop.
Classy, an eight-grader from Stockton, Calif., is pretty much the toast of Taft Elementary right now, says principal Dee Johnson. After all, how many 13-year-olds have been invited to the inauguration? "It really is causing some excitement," Johnson says.
Classy flew to Washington on Saturday to meet up with hundreds of other students from around the country — all 5th to 12th graders chosen by the People to People Ambassadors program. The students are spending a week visiting landmarks, museums and monuments, and learning about the 2008 election. The highlight, of course, is the swearing-in ceremony. "I want to become a part of history and witness things others can't see," says Classy.
And yes, there'll be a ball — a special one set up by the program. To complete the look of her new dress from Bella's Bridal shop, Classy got her hair done in a donut bun before leaving California.
To help Classy pay the airfare, the school held a fundraiser in the cafeteria. Classy's mom, Nakia Williams, made ribs. There was spaghetti from a local restaurant. Williams says about $500 was raised. Further donations came from church and from family members.
Williams won't be accompanying her daughter, but she's acutely aware of how important her experience will be.
"It's history all the way and I'm so excited for her," says Williams, 30, who's working toward becoming a nurse's aide. "And I was raised in Chicago, so it's even more exciting for me. I've followed Obama ever since he arrived on the scene."
During a phone interview last week as mother and daughter rushed to finish last-minute errands, Classy reminded her mom to mention that Dwight D. Eisenhower's granddaughter, Mary, would greet the students in Washington. They'll also be visiting Arlington National Cemetery, Mount Vernon, the war memorials, the Capitol and the National Archives, to name just a few items on the packed itinerary.
Most of all, though, "Classy is so excited and happy to see a black president take office," says her mother. "And one day, if she has a family of her own, she'll be able to describe history to them."
With roads closed and public transportation stretched to its limits, the only option many inaugural visitors will have on Tuesday is good old shoe leather. Among those trudging in the cold will probably be Corinne Wingard, 66, who planned to walk the eight miles from the rented apartment she and a friend found on Craigslist.
But Wingard, from Agawam in western Massachusetts, is hardly complaining. She can't, in fact, believe her luck: She scored a pair of tickets by virtue of being named one the state's 12 electors. It was a fringe benefit she didn't expect.
A social worker in the Hartford, Conn., public schools until she retired three years ago, Wingard found herself drawn to volunteer on the 2005 campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who became only the second African-American to be elected governor in the country.
She heard Barack Obama's speeches early in the presidential campaign and was transfixed. "It wasn't just what he said," Wingard says. "It was the character, intelligence and integrity of the man."
She knocked on doors for Obama in New Hampshire, then was crushed when he lost that primary to Clinton. She worked even harder, and became the coordinator of volunteers for western Massachusetts. She became passionate about her volunteer work.
It was sometime on the last night of the Democratic convention in Denver — Wingard was watching on TV — that she remembers thinking, "We're really gonna do this."
On election night, Wingard gathered with a couple hundred other volunteers in a small storefront campaign office in Springfield, Mass. There was pizza and chicken, beer and wine. Eyes were glued to a giant TV screen. "When you really win, it's like, WOW," she says.
Wingard was planning to travel by bus and train to Washington, and to reunite for meals with volunteer friends from her state. But her main focus was on Tuesday.
"When you believe in somebody that much and then you see them take the oath of office," she muses, "it must be indescribable."
She's the daughter of a man who was president, vice president, senator and congressman, and the wife of a man who was governor and senator. That adds up to a whole lot of inaugurations that Lynda Johnson Robb has attended in her lifetime — so many, she can't even count.
But somehow that hasn't dulled the excitement for Robb, the daughter of Lyndon B. Johnson, and so she planned to pack up some handwarmers and footwarmers and a trusty old muff, and make her way to Obama's swearing-in. Then she planned to somehow meet up with other family members for the parade. After that? "I'll get on the Metro and go home," says Robb, who lives in Virginia.
Inaugurations still hold a sense of magic for Robb, 64, who's been on the podium four times. The most memorable: the swearing-in of her father as president in 1965. "I was 20 going on 21," she says. "I was seated next to Mom, in the front row, three or four over. What a great seat. In front of us was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It was amazing to look out and see everyone."
Most children of past presidents usually decline to speak to the media about their experiences: Amy Carter, Chelsea Clinton, Caroline Kennedy, and Barbara and Jenna Bush among them.
But Robb was expansive about her inaugural memories in a recent telephone interview. The elder of LBJ's two daughters, known for her White House wedding to Chuck Robb in 1967, she now spends her time as "a professional volunteer and a delighted grandmother," active in organizations such as the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance. She recently participated in "Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out," a collection of pieces about the first family's residence.
Robb's inaugural memories extend back to Eisenhower's 1953 inauguration, when she was a small girl. She curled up in a Senate window and had not only a great view, but "my most comfortable inauguration ever!"
As for the balls, they weren't very comfortable at all.
"It was just rush rush rush. Racing to get someplace, being there and then racing off again. Jumping in and out of cars. Not a very intimate evening."
With all that inaugural experience, Robb knows a little bit about keeping warm, with a nod to tradition, too. She wears the same mink hat to every inauguration, one she inherited from her mother, Lady Bird, who died in 2007. It comes with that aforementioned muff.
"Nobody knows what a muff is anymore," she sighs.